By James Maher
Name: Nick Sitnycky
Occupation: Owner, John’s of 12th Street
Location: 12th Street between 1st and 2nd Ave
Time: 1 pm on Monday, Dec. 16
I was born in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg when no one wanted to be in Williamsburg. When I was 9 years old, my parents moved over to Avenue B between 5th and 6th. That was 1958. We moved in 1968 to 145 Second Avenue.
I go back to 1958. Everyone tries to be cool and tells me, ‘Oh I remember the Fillmore East.’ I say, ‘The Fillmore East was a latecomer. It was the Loew’s Commodore.’ When we were kids we’d hang around Avenue B and C. There were little candy stores all over and they’d sell 1-cent chocolates, along with 5-cent sodas. There was Gem Spa, there were used comic book stores on Avenue C. You’d go in and you could buy a used comic book for a penny or two pennies. You’d walk in and it would look like a warehouse.
All us kids would be standing around on corners. And you’d actually be doo-wopping on the street, doo-wop music, you’d harmonize. We were wearing our leather jackets with the stars on it, that was cool. You’d have your groups and then you’d go walk down certain blocks you couldn’t walk down, just because. You’d run away and they’d chase you. It was like cowboys and Indians.
It was almost ethnic by block. You’d have an Italian block, an Irish block, a Puerto Rican block, a Ukrainian block, a Polish block. First Avenue was all Italian stores — it was Italian or it was Kosher. There would be Kosher stores that only sold butter and eggs. There would be Italian butchers and Italian produce stores, fish stores, little butchers on the side streets, Kosher butchers and Italian butchers. There were all these movie houses. All of us kids would be playing basketball and football in Tompkins Square Park. We’d roller-skate around the circle. If you wanted to play baseball you’d go over the bridge on the FDR drive and play in the park along the river.
There weren’t many restaurants around then. It was either the Chinese restaurant or John’s. There was Sonny’s pizzeria around the corner where the kids would go, where Cacio e Pepe is now. Sonny was married to John’s daughter. So when I finished grammar school, my family came to John’s for dinner. In 1962, I had my graduation party from high school at John’s. Then I went to St. John’s and graduated with an economics degree in 1966, and where did I have my graduation dinner, in John’s restaurant. I got my masters at Adelphi in ’68 and we had our dinner at John’s.
John’s is an institution. John Pucciatti came from the province of Umbria, from the little medieval village of Bevagna, between Spoleto and Assisi. My wife and I actually went there. He opened this restaurant 105 years ago, in 1908. The restaurant was just the front room and he was the chef and his wife, known as ‘Momma John,’ helped him.
When prohibition came 10 years later, this became a speakeasy. The whole second floor of the building was the speakeasy. People would sit and eat and then the people who knew would ask for ‘dessert upstairs.’ They’d go through from the restaurant. You can see the outline of a door that they sealed. Our back room was the backyard and Momma John was the brewmaster. She actually made her own hooch. There was a little shack and in there was a still and in the basement she made her wine. Then she had a pulley system to get the liquor up to the second floor because they never wanted a drop of liquor in the restaurant, so whenever they got raided there was never a violation.
Remember, this was the time of "Boardwalk Empire." Joe the Boss Masseria was a real guy and a real friend of John’s. And Lucky Luciano was down here also in the neighborhood, so they would always be around here. And then there was the other side. I’d guess you’d call John a progressive because he was a very, very socialist-minded individual. There were a lot of meetings here. There were guys like Carlo Tresca, who was a real firebrand. And one day they gunned him down [on 13th Street and 5th Avenue]. So you had two sides, the anarchists and the Mafia, that hated each other. But they were all here in John’s.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Part 2 tomorrow: Big Nick and Mike buy John's in 1972.
Previously on EV Grieve:
About the new ownership for 105-year-old East Village institution John's of 12th Street